Members to AFL-CIO Head Trumka: Whose Side Are You On?
Policy + Politics

Members to AFL-CIO Head Trumka: Whose Side Are You On?

REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

The AFL-CIO, the premier labor organization, at one time was optimistic of playing a major role in the 2016 presidential campaign.

And when labor chief Richard Trumka announced in February that his executive council wouldn’t make an endorsement until after the Democratic primary season, that was widely viewed as a slap at former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and boost for her long-shot challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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With Clinton now close to wrapping up the nomination despite Sanders’s raft of late-season primary victories, the AFL-CIO will have the dubious distinction of being one of the last labor organizations to climb aboard Clinton’s campaign bandwagon.

But now a bitter feud between environmentalists and labor groups threatens to torpedo an important $50 million get-out-the-vote fundraising drive that was meant to showcase the AFL-CIO’s firepower in the 2016 campaign.

The presidents of seven building-trade unions are outraged that Trumka plans to join forces in that effort with Thomas F. Steyer, the billionaire San Francisco hedge fund manager and leading Democratic environmentalist committed to combatting climate change, according to the New York Times. The labor leaders are irate that Trumka and the AFL-CIO chose to team up with Steyer who has opposed projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and coal fired power plants that hold out the promise of tens of thousands of jobs for their members.

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In a sharply worded letter to Trumka, the labor leaders demanded that the AFL-CIO abandon plans to create a super PAC with Steyer, the founder of the political advocacy group NextGen Climate that spent $74 million during the 2014 midterm election campaign in support of Democratic congressional candidates. 

The AFL-CIO and several unions representing state, county and municipal workers and teachers announced last week that they would team up with Steyer to assist Democratic candidates this fall. The goal was to raise at least $50 million, and Steyer vowed to get the ball rolling with a $5 million contribution.

The irate letter, signed by Sean McGarvey, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, and the representatives of seven unions within the federation, blasted Trump and the AFL-CIO for aligning with outside groups that sometimes oppose projects that would create jobs. 

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“Unfortunately, a growing trend within the Federation seems to consistently minimize the importance of Building Trades jobs and our members’ livelihoods in the pursuit of a coalition strategy with outside organizations that has produced mixed results at best and disastrous results at worst for our members and their employment prospects in many instances throughout the country,” the union officials wrote.

The high profile rift comes at a time of declining union membership and influence and the growing appeal of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has campaigned in industrial states against free trade agreements and illegal immigrants that have cost union members their jobs.